Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev releases Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, from their internal exile in Gorky, a major city on the Volga River that was then closed to foreigners. The move was hailed as evidence of Gorbachev’s commitment to lessening political repression inside the Soviet Union.
Sakharov was a long-time critic of government policies in Russia. He was sentenced to internal exile in 1980 following his denunciations of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Through the years, Sakharov emerged as a symbol of Soviet dissidents, and became a hero to many in the West. Gorbachev, who pledged to ease Soviet political restrictions, recognized that releasing Sakharov and his wife would legitimize his program of “glasnost,” political openness. For his part, Sakharov was happy about Gorbachev’s attempts to ease the harsh communist rule in Russia and even traveled to the United States to ask the American people to assist the Soviet Union during its period of reform.
As Gorbachev discovered, however, Sakharov was no puppet. When the former political prisoner became a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, he continued to support Gorbachev’s reform plans, but also harshly criticized the slow pace of change. During a December 1989 speech in which Sakharov demanded a new multiparty political system for Russia, Gorbachev quickly cut him off. Later that same day, Sakharov died of a heart attack.